“I want to be the best in the world” is probably the most common phrase uttered by so many people, however for most of us that phrase remains a dream. On 23 April 2015, Ilse Hayes’s dream came true as she became the fastest female Para-athlete in the world. She broke the previous 100m world record of 11:99 with an impressive 11:89 seconds at the IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Brazil.
“When I crossed the line I thought: ‘that was a good race’.”
Ilse, however was the last to celebrate her achievement. “I could not see what the time was but I could hear my teammates go wild so I figured that something must have happened.” The achievement only hit home while driving back to the hotel with her coach. “I become emotional… I could not look at my coach without crying as all the sacrifices flashed before me.”
At the age of eleven, Ilse was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease. In other words, she is unable to see basic detail. Consequently, Ilse was approached to participate in the visually impaired class where she could compete against people with the same impairment as her own. The visually impaired class has three categories: T11, T12 and T13. Ilse falls in the T13 category. This category is the one where the athletes has the best sight and where the rules are the same as that of the able bodied athletes. They run with eight runners in a race contrary to the four runners in the other categories and they run without a guide. “I love being treated the same as those without a disability.”
At age 15, Ilse joined the South African junior Paralympic team, and in 2002, age 17, she competed in her first senior world championship. Hayes soon became on of SA’s guaranteed medalist. During the 2004 Summer Paralympic in Athens she walked away with bronze in a 400m race. The following summer at the Paralympic Games in Beijing she achieved gold in long jump as well as silver for the 100m race. Ilse repeated this performance in London at the 2012 Paralympics and once again at the 2013 IPC Athletics World Championship in Lyon. Recently she broke the world record across categories. The list of her athletic achievements is endless.
However, it was only recently that she could consider herself as a professional athlete. Ilse had to juggle being a full-time student and a full-time athlete for most of her athletic career. She studied BA Sport Science at Stellenbosch University. Her goal was to become a biokineticist but she wasn’t accepted for the honours programme due to her visual impairment. This was a huge disappointment to her because she was under the impression that her visual impairment would not be a problem. At the end it highlighted itself as an obstacle to one of her dreams. Although Ilse’s sight might not be the best, she lacks no vision for her life and has learned to turn obstacles into opportunities. Ilse then chose to pursue an Honours degree in Pediatric Science. After completing her Honours she continued to practice in this area for three years at a community project. Although she finished studying she now had to juggle full-time employment with being a full-time athlete.
Ilse also loves being creative and has thus decided to venture into a more artistic space. Currently she is busy with an online course in interior design. The course as most other things in her life is accompanied with challenges due to her visual impairment but Ilse always try to find a way to work around it.
Hayes recognises the support of her family, friends and her husband Cassie Carstens as a key contributor to her success. “Surround yourself with people who support you”
Having a coffee with Ilse is always a big treat for me because I walk away inspired and challenged. Most of the time Ilse would ask me to read the menu. On one occasion the menu seemed to be a bit foreign for my taste. I might be the one with the better sight but I am also the one who has been struggling with public reading for years. I am not a very good reader and I did not pause when I should have. Therefore, when the waiter came, Ilse asked for the third item on the menu. I felt so embarrassed because I knew that she probably wanted something lower down on the menu. Upon reflection, I realised that everyday there are little challenges we all face, whether you have a visual impairment or you lack confidence in public reading.
I once asked Ilse: “Should the opportunity arise to be able to see perfectly, would you take it?” Ilse responded with a big smile on her face: “This is my life, and I love it”.
I become cognisant of my own perception of what a prosperous life looks like. What I saw as a problem, Ilse embraced as part of her life and was able to turn it around as a blessing. It made me wonder: “Was I to impose a view that something was wrong with a life that is lived to its utmost?”
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. – John 9:1-3
I am currently experiencing some form of patellofemoral pain. It hurts at times and it keeps me from running at a desired pace and distance. Over the last few months people have been praying for healing but I am still experiencing some pain. Consequently, I have heard a variety of Christian views on my injury; ranging from, me needing to become more involved in church (that is why my knee is not aligned correctly), to the perspective that God is trying to teach me something, to the argument that I should just believe; “Where is your faith Bianca?” We all have our own theology on sickness and healing and we are all trying to make sense of life and its challenges. Personally, I have no answers to why some of us go through difficult circumstances and experience hurt and pain. Meanwhile, I have become very thankful for the exposure of my injury. It uncovered many other muscle alignment issues in my body due to various contributing factors such as my running style and the fact that I do not do any muscle strengthening. Thankfully, I am now able to give attention to these matters. I will still continue to ask people to pray for my knee because I do believe in divine healing and parallel to that, I will see the physiotherapist because I also believe in wisdom and stewardship.
Ilse obtained an injury during a competition in London, 2012. However, this journey resulted in her cementing her identity in Christ and not in being an athlete. Nevertheless, 2013 was a difficult year for her due to her injuries. “The time spend in rehab has made me stronger both physically and mentally.” From August 2013 till now she only had one injury and was unable to run for two weeks compared to previous years. “Being able to run without injuries for so long contributed to my success.”
My knee problem cannot be compared to Ilse’s visual impairment or her injuries as an international athlete. I however learned the following from her: embrace the challenges that comes your way; get up and fight back by living life to the fullest; do not allow circumstances to determine the bar of your goals; and rest in the goodness and love of God.
Ilse is a true inspiration on and off the tract. She faces new challenges with her recent achievement but even on that level she manages to see the glass as half full oppose to half empty. “I had to become use to the expectation of the outside world created by the media… so I had to learn to stay true to myself and not allow the new levels of media attention to influence my game plan or to become prideful… on the flip-side of the coin I realised that a bigger platform is given to me to inspire people.”
A few days ago on 10 August 2015, Cuba’s Omara Duran ran the 100m T12 heat in only 11:65 seconds. This was not an open category race as the one that Ilse won earlier this year. Nevertheless, a new world record was set. Every second counts on the track and similarly every second counts in how we live our lives. Some things such as world record are temporary and therefore its achievements should never be our primary goal.
Ilse models a balanced life, a thankful life, a life lived to the full and to the glory of God. She challenges each one of us to align ourselves with a positive perspective on life; what we have, who we are and on what has been entrusted to us.
“You must have dreams to work towards because dreams can become a reality… never give up. It took me ten years before I ran the world record.”
More than achieving her goal of running a world record, Ilse’s life inspires others in so many ways. Her life shouts victory in the midst of adversity. Her life reflects vision, as having perfect sight. She is indeed a true champion.